Flags and speakers – sign of the times

From NETANI RIKA on Buka, Bougainville

IF flags here could speak, they would tell of an island chain poised on the edge of nationhood and held back only by an act of free choice and a decision to be made by legislators in Port Moresby.

From every conceivable vantage point the flag of the Autonomous Bougainville Government fluttered proudly in the wind to proclaim that the referendum on the territory’s independence was underway.

On buildings and coconut trees, on boats, trucks and bicycles, the flag of what may become the world’s next independent nation showed that Bougainville had finally come of age.

In 1989 the archipelago descended into a 10-year civil war, in protest against the failure of Australia and Papua New Guinea to take better care of the islands’ population.

Two peace agreements, 30 years and 15,000 lives later, the guns have been laid down, peace has returned and islanders – gathered under the flag of an autonomous Bougainville must answer a simple question

Do they want to be completely free or gain greater autonomy while remaining part of PNG? Some 206,000 people will vote at 800 sites over the next 13 days to decide their future.

A series of negotiations will then take place with legislators in Port Moresby to agree on a process towards the desire of the people while maintaining peace.

Former PNG Prime Minister, Peter O’Neill yesterday said peace was the only hope for Bougainville. “We cannot go back to the crisis and the loss of life,” he said. “The vote must be undertaken in a peaceful manner, properly supported by our security forces to ensure transparency and public confidence.’’

The security forces were out on the streets supported by a regional police mission and the situation was calm at 21 voting stations which were open on the first day of the referendum.

Locals do not believe there will be any trouble at this stage.

With flags in their hands or stuck in their hair the people of Bougainville flocked to the polls.

A local radio journalist said that the turnout on Day One of the referendum was huge compared to national elections.

Deputy Speaker of Bougainville’s parliament, Francesca Semoso, arrived in Buka yesterday (Saturday) for the vote after attending a meeting of parliamentarians in Australia.

A large Bougainville flag flew from the back of her truck at Buka Airport.

The security guard who cleared her through the gate wore starched khakis, a green beret creased at a perfect angle, dark glasses and the ubiquitous cobalt-blue flag of Bougainville stuck in his hair. “The outcome of the referendum is clear,’’ Semoso said as she loaded her baggage into the waiting truck. “Our people want independence and they will vote for independence.’’

Her sentiments appeared to be echoed by the fluttering flags from the airport to the main town and all across Buka Island.

The reality is, however, that even if independence is the outcome of the referendum, the final decision will only be official after negotiations between Bougainville and PNG legislators and an act of parliament in Port Moresby. That process may take years.

Already legislators in Port Moresby are asking whether voters had enough information to make an informed determination of their political future.

And some – including Prime Minister James Marape – have called for economic independence before political freedom.

The journey to independence is far from over.

Bougainville stands on the brink of nationhood. But for now, the proud, fluttering flags offer some distraction from what may be a protracted and painful birth of the world’s newest nation.

• Netani Rika flew to Bougainville courtesy of the Pacific Islands Forum secretariat